Thousands of drug offenders in federal prison could be eligible for reductions in their sentences based on guidelines approved unanimously by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and announced Friday afternoon.
“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said in a statement. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
Applying the new sentencing guidelines retroactively means inmates can petition a judge for a sentence reduction — not that they'll automatically get one. The change affects close to 50,000 inmates in federal prison, whose sentences could be reduced by an average of about two years. The federal prison system is overcrowded. At 216,000 inmates, it is operating at 32% beyond capacity, according to the commission.
The Obama administration had initially opposed making the guidelines retroactive for a smaller number of inmates. In June, Attorney General Eric Holder told the commission that "those who have possessed or used weapons in committing their crimes and those who have significant criminal histories—should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity."
The United States imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world, and about two-thirds of those formerly incarcerated are rearrested within three years of release. However, a 2014 study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that looked at inmates released through reductions approved in 2007 for crack cocaine sentencing found that they were statistically no more likely to be rearrested than those who did not receive a sentence reduction. In each group, only about a third of the formerly incarcerated were rearrested.
If Congress doesn't step in, some inmates could be eligible for release as soon as November 2015. Congress has until November of this year to oppose the commission's decision.
Civil liberties and criminal justice reform groups rushed to praise the commission's decision. Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union said the decision "will offer relief to thousands of people who received overly harsh sentences under the old sentencing guidelines." Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said the move "will change the lives of tens of thousands of families whose loved ones were given overly long drug sentences."